Copyright ©Hans Olsson
When the walls close in around me
When the ceiling's caving in
When the anxiety surrounds me
When my patience is wearing thin
Sometimes I drive to run from all my demons
Sometimes I drive so I can be alone
Sometimes I drive to see the world in a different light
Sometimes I drive for no reason at all
Assemblage 23 - Drive
"Pussycunt it’s hot! And even hotter in this booth. I think the air-conditioning is on, but it's hardly noticeable. Phew. Next summer I’m going to take a long road-trip in the car. I’ll need it after all this. I’ll take my brother with me, he should have recovered from the transplant by then. It's good that nothing goes to waste during these few days, isn't it? I had a long discussion with a work-mate about the waiting lists for organs, and boy, she was negative! I've no idea, but my brother gets some money just because I'm taking part, and a chance of getting an operation to remove the tumour. I think that's a good thing, anyhow.
"It would of course be even better if they managed to find a cure, and I think they'll succeed. If they do, I'll personally kiss the scientist and then drag him up to a motel room, where I can give him something he'll never forget. He, he. I know many people think that there's a news shortage these days, and that you never get to know anything. And I know that many think it's good that the population is decreasing, so there's more food to go around. But I don't think so, and it's not true. I've never starved, and I'm not rich. We've not forgotten how to be human, have we? If someone falls down, we help them up – of course we do. That's what I want to show by taking part in the tournament.
"Don't worry about me, I always manage. I'll have soon made it through the worst of it, and there's just a little way to go before I'll be able to pull out. I'll reopen as many soup kitchens that I can with the winnings, once I've sorted out the long-term distribution of course. It'll all be OK."
Marie had the dealer button. The first hand that Peter was dealt was rubbish. He quickly discarded his 5♠8♥ and observed the others instead. He had some idea about Friedrich and Marie, but the rest were strangers. He was most interested in Gunnar who had a whole mountain of chips. 96,000 was impressive, however you looked at it. He could exert quite some pressure if he wanted.
When it was Gunnar's turn, he raised to 12,000. It was a one-way road forwards, and you had to build the largest stack as quickly as possible. Duncan agreed to call in the end, and the remaining players folded.
Tess turned over the flop with a skilfully smooth hand movement: 3♠3♣A♣.
Gunnar was first to act. He scratched his throat, stroked his nose and shrugged. "Bet 20,000."
"What? With that hand?" Duncan exclaimed, aghast. "You can't be serious! Do you have an ace? Or rockets?"
Gunnar shrugged once more. Peter couldn't work out if he was pretending to be nonchalant, or if he knew what he was doing. It was probably a combination of both, and that made Gunnar an exceptionally dangerous opponent. He had to keep his wits about him, so he didn't fall into a mental trap and follow Mads fate to his death.
"You don't have anything," Duncan said, staring at Gunnar. "But I haven't come this far to be knocked out by the likes of you. I'm folding."
New cards landed in front of them and the dealer button lumbered onwards. In Peter's mind it began to resemble a beetle, or a round, flat spider crawling around in elliptical circles. He resisted the temptation to reach out and smash it with his hand. The button stopped in front of Gunnar, and new cards were dealt out so fast that Peter hardly registered Tess's hand movements.
Peter looked down at 3♣10♦.
"Seriously?" he muttered to himself, and discarded the cards.
This time Gunnar raised once more to 12,000, which made Duncan swear but he folded all the same. Peter got the impression that he was annoyed because of the previous hand, not tilted, but irritated. Anne decided to go all-in, and Gunnar called after a long pause.
"You may show your cards," Tess said, mechanically.
Gunnar turned up his cards without any expression: J♣Q♦.
Anne revealed her cards, the tension showing clearly in her face: 9♣9♥.
Tess turned over the flop, 5♣4♣K♣.
Anne twisted her head, looking in distress at the cards on the table and her opponents' piles. At that moment, the guns sounded twice in quick succession. The ninth round was underway at full speed.
Tess burned a card and revealed the turn, 8♣.
"Come on, nine!" Anne muttered, leaning over the table with anxious eyes, not seeming to realise that her hand was dead, that she was dead.
The river was 7♦.
That didn't change anything, she'd lost against the flush. The guards came, waited for a few seconds, then they firmly assisted Anne onto her feet and pushed her towards the stage. Shortly afterwards, the bang and a heavy thud was heard. Peter yawned by reflex to clear his ears and to maintain his focus on the new cards that landed in front of him.
The dealer button moved on, and a few hands later the speakers came to life again.
"It's now 11 am, and the blinds are now at level sixteen, 2,500-5,000 with an ante of 500. May the kings bring you luck."
Gunnar was in the pot again, and he was volatile, like a bottle of nitroglycerine. He occasionally pushed the pot up to huge sums. Other times, he kept to the blinds. He had no observable pattern. A short while later, the big blind ended up once more at Peter.
Friedrich and Marie called the big blind and joined.
Peter had 4♥A♥. It was OK. A hand worth betting on? Probably.
"Call," he said.
Friedrich glared at him, then joined as well. Three players.
Tess turned up the flop, 6♣K♥Q♣.
Peter was first out. His own cards had been reduced to trash. That wasn't good. The question was what the others would do about it. Was it worth attempting to bluff? His gut feeling told him it wasn't, mostly due to the fact that Friedrich was staring angrily first at Peter and then his own cards. He'd probably made a hit, a pair of queens perhaps? He wished he could see into the future, if only a couple of seconds.
"Check," he decided.
"Why be such a coward? You have to bet a little," Friedrich sneered. "Bet 9,000."
"All-in," Marie said at once, winking at Peter.
"I'm folding," he said, looking down at the table. He got the feeling that she was defending him, like a teacher stepping in when a child was teased. In this place it was excruciatingly touching. He couldn't bear to look at her. Pussycunt.
"Call," Friedrich said icily.
"Good luck," Peter mumbled to Marie, meaning it. She winked at him again.
"Women shouldn't play poker," Friedrich stated drily. "It'll never be good. In all my years as a software developer, I've never met a single woman who can write code. Some of them say they can. Some of them can even write an if statement. But none of them can really program. It's true. Women can't play poker. You may think you can, but you can't. Call."
"Why did you say that?" Peter asked, suddenly angry. "Why are you being such an asshole?"
"I'm not. I'm just saying. It's not my fault that that's the way it is. Everybody has to accept it."
Friedrich turned up his cards, revealing 9♣K♠.
Marie turned over her cards, 7♣8♣.
Tess dealt the turn: 9♠.
On the table was 6♣K♥Q♣9♠, which meant that Friedrich had two pairs and had a clear lead. Marie had the chance of a flush or a straight, many outs. Peter's felt tears welling up for her sake. She didn't mean much to him personally, but he'd grown to like the stocky woman. Who was smiling. Pussycunt, how she was smiling. Tess turned over the river: 3♦.
Marie's hand was dead. With all that implied.
"Ouch," she said. "C'est la vie. It'll be nice to get away from this place now. I'm too tired for this pressure. It's a relief, actually, like getting in the car and just driving wherever you want to go."
"I'll never forget you, Marie," Peter murmured.
"I know you won't," she said, stretched over the table and patted his cheek. She gave him the warmest smile that Peter had ever seen.
Behind that smile he saw something that froze him to the bone – relief. She was leaving, just as she wished. A few seconds later the guns went off, followed by the thud. He wanted to get back at Friedrich. Maybe he could if he had the right cards at the right time. But the cards he wanted never came, and the tournament rolled relentlessly on.
Some hands later, Gunnar spoke up in frustration. "If you deal me good cards for the rest of the round, I promise you I'll win the whole lot," he smiled, looking insinuatingly at Tess. "And when I do, I'll buy you whatever you like. Deal?"
Tess didn't respond.
"They can't be bribed, you know," Friedrich said, shaking his head.
"He's right," Peter added. "Never in the history of King's Hope has a contestant ever managed to bribe a croupier."
"Someone has to be the first," Gunnar replied cheerfully, and then let the matter drop. Perhaps there was a hint of seriousness to his comment, but Peter knew that no croupier at King's Hope would allow themselves to be bribed. Although, as every player did at some point, Peter entertained the idea. What if he could choose his cards? What if …
Real life outside the walls of King's Hope was tough, it always had been and always would be. The past few years had however been even tougher. The value of human life had sunk drastically all over the world, and why not? Eliminating a few during the tournament at King's Hope didn't help. It was exactly like Illi had said. On the other hand, the tournament helped to reduce violence out there. Even if the authorities tried to keep violent crime in check, they didn't intervene as effectively or often. Natural selection was back in the struggle for survival, and King's Hope was a valve for easing the pressure. Each year, the worst areas calmed down for a couple of weeks after the poker tournament had been broadcast globally. It gave the people out there a well-needed respite. And for the ones in here … If you made it to the top hundred, you could at least live off the sum of money you were given, if you elected to leave the contest. For many, it was worth the risks.
A few uneventful hands later, Peter had started to see a pattern in Gunnar's play. He often went all-in when he had at least one high card in his hand, and he was happy to show them when everybody else folded. It worked maybe half the time, which made him intimidating to bet against. Duncan took a chance at one point and thereby managed to double his chips. In the next hand, Duncan lost his profit and his chips were moved to Jasmina. Accumulating chips was even more important right now that they were so close to the final round. They had maybe half an hour left. And then he needed to make it to top one hundred to get into The Book. The thought made him short of breath. To be honest, he'd never believed he'd make it this far. Right now, he had about 35,000 left, seven big blinds.
The gunpowder bangs came frequently. The rest of the round would probably go by quickly. For better or worse.
Before too long, he was dealt a hand he was willing to bet on. His nose almost began to sweat as he peered down at A♣K♦.
The dealer button was in front of Martha, and Peter had the small blind. Duncan was under the gun and folded. Gunnar bet 15,000. He must be holding a high card. Although, Peter had one as well.
Friedrich joined in and the others folded. When it was Peter's turn, he took his time. It wasn't unusual for Gunnar to bet aggressively, but it was worrying that Friedrich was in as well.
At the next table but one, the guards dragged up a player who'd dozed off and whose chips had been whittled away by the blinds and ante. Peter thought he heard the man snoring, but he wasn't certain. The ensuing gun shot seemed to come from far away.
"All-in," he said calmly. It was time.
"Who's the arsehole now?" Freidrich asked bitterly. "You can't play poker either."
Peter shrugged and tried to look cool. Friedrich rubbed his cheek. "I don't think you have anything. Time for you to go home, Peter boy. Call."
Peter's pulse shot up. Winning a pot when everyone else folded was sometimes the most satisfying way to win. Arbitrage, a certain profit. But now he needed to flex his muscles once more and hope that he walked away from the battle alive.
"All-in," Gunnar replied. Friedrich swore.
Three players. Do or die. That expression had never seemed more relevant. Peter had the fewest chips of the three, and he'd therefore be knocked out if the others had better cards. Friedrich had a little more, but just then Gunnar had the most. That meant that it would be a side pot for Friedrich and Gunnar.
Friedrich placed down his cards first. He hammered them down on the table in anger, almost making the chip piles fall.
He had Q♥K♥.
Peter turned over his A♣K♦.
"You bastard," Friedrich burst out.
Gunnar turned up his cards: 7♠7♣.
A pair was terrifyingly strong in situations like that. For the time being, Peter's hand won over Friedrich's, but Gunnar's beat them both. He was only a couple of minutes from a gun shot to the head. For some bizarre reason, all he could think about was that he should have used deodorant before the guards shot him so that the guards didn't think he smelt bad. The kings on the table were grinning at him, they smelt good for sure. So that's how he'd meet his fate, with a guilty conscience for not having taken a shower recently.
Tess turned over the flop: 4♠5♠8♥.
His stomach turned and a nasty, sticky taste developed in his mouth. He wanted to rub his teeth clean with something, and he glanced at the cards on the table. Friedrich's queen looked suitable, but he left it alone.
The turn was 4♣.
It was over. For both him and Friedrich. That bothered him, because if they were knocked out at the same time he'd be shot before Friedrich since he had fewer chips. The guards were very particular about that. He didn't want to die. Not now, not when he was so close. His gaze was fixed on Tess's hands that were moving in slow motion over the deck of cards she was clutching. She burned a card, and drew the topmost card painfully slowly.
She turned up the river: A♦.
Peter started to cough as the knot in his stomach unwound in a spasm. It wasn't because he was happy or vindictive, but rather sheer surprise. Somehow, he'd survived once more.
I'll never go all-in again, he thought to himself, even though he knew he would do when he had to.
"You cheating son of a bitch," Friedrich screamed in a rage. "You have to be cheating. Guards, check out this fucker, Peter, 5,727. He's cheating! Cheating!" He continued to shout as the guards lifted him forcefully from his chair and pushed the tall, thin man to the stage.
Tess pushed Peter's share of the pot over the line as the gun went off. It took a couple of seconds before the thud came, and Peter looked up at the stage. Friedrich was standing and swaying. In his forehead there was a red hole above his dark and uncomprehending eyes. Then he fell sideways and hit the floor. The guards were there with the body bag straight away, and then he was gone.
"I'll remember you," Peter whispered as if by reflex, although he wasn't sure he'd keep that promise. His thoughts stopped in their tracks. He didn't need to remember Freidrich. It was Gunnar who'd knocked him out since he'd had more chips than Peter.
That pot was well-needed in the fast game. Gunnar was living proof of that right now. He'd begun the round with the biggest stack, but now he had the smallest pile at the table, just under 30,000. Peter had about 100,000. Now he'd be able to discard quite a few hands without being pressed into a corner. Would it be enough for the top hundred? Not a chance. Depressing, but true.
Gunnar seemed to be unaffected by his loss. Completely, perfectly and totally professionally unaffected. Two hands later, he went all-in pre-flop and Duncan called in irritation. Duncan lost the hand with J♠7♠ against Gunnar's 8♣8♦. And just like that, Gunnar was back on track again. A light went out in Duncan's mind after that hand.
Pull yourself together, Peter thought. You can recover. Duncan couldn't, and few hands later he was knocked out by Martha. The guns saluted him farewell.
The round ought to be soon finished, but it stretched on since most players seemed to be unwilling to bet their lives so close to the final round. In the next few hands, Peter managed to win some blinds, but he lost a half-decent pot to Gunnar when he had J♣K♣ but folded since there was little chance of a straight on the table. Soon afterwards, a new player arrived. Table number nineteen had rapidly been depleted of players, and the woman who joined them was the sole survivor. She had silver-grey hair, brown eyes and looked to be very young. She hardly had time to take her seat before the speakers sounded.
"It's now 11:52 am and the ninth round is now finished. The final round will start at 12:52 pm on the thirty-fifth floor. King's Hope congratulates everyone who has come this far, and wishes you all luck in the final. May the cards fall to your advantage."
It seemed unreal. He'd made 77,000 in chips. It felt like he was delirious. But it was for real, he was alive and very close to the top one hundred. So close to The Book, and immortality. It was now he had to be extremely cautious, because temptation comes when you are nearly there. It was also now the real fear came creeping on his skin, like a blood-sucking leech.
Next stop, the final round.